Friday, April 7, 2017
According to the AP, Arizona just passed a bill that will make every student in the state eligible for voucher. It may become the biggest voucher program in the nation. The "program allows parents to take between 90 percent and 100 percent of the state money a local public school would receive to pay for private or religious education. The average student who isn't disabled will get about $4,400 a year, but some get much more." The funding mechanism and its expected cost to the state is murky. "The original Arizona plan was estimated to cost the state general fund at least $24 million." Now, a revised plan and estimate are supposed to save the state $3.4 million by 2022.
What is clear, however, is that Arizona's per pupil funding for public schools currently ranks 47 out of 50 states. To make matters worse, it distributes those meager funds unequally. The Education Law Center's 2017 School Funding Fairness Report grades Arizona's funding distribution as an "F." Schools with moderate levels of student poverty receive only 88 cents on the dollar in comparison to schools with no student poverty. The comparison is even worse between high poverty school districts and low poverty school districts. In other words, Arizona spends the least on students who need the most.
That same report also shows that Arizona is doing almost nothing to fix its low funding levels or unequal distribution. Arizona ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the level of fiscal effort it exerts to fund its schools.
These background facts place Arizona's new voucher program in a troubling light. These cold hard facts show that the state is not really interested in supporting adequate and equal education for its students. Thus, it is no surprise the state would double down and make matters worse. If gross inequity and inadequacy in public schools does not bother the state as a general principle, why would robbing those schools of more money be a problem? Why not just cap the state investment in a students' education, send that student to private school, and tell the family and or the private school that they need to make up the difference? If things do not work out in the future, that is on the family and the private school.
These background facts also mean that the rhetoric of political leaders lacks credibility. Speaking of the voucher program, the Governor tweeted: "When parents have more choices, kids win." If one understands the facts, one understands that this voucher program is not about helping kids in Arizona "win." It is about raw politics and continuing the longstanding trend of depriving public schools of the resources they need to succeed. If parents in Arizona want vouchers (or charters), it is not because those policies are normatively appealing. It is because the state has been robbing them of the public education they deserve. Many families now surely believe they have no other realistic option. In short, the state has created the factual predicate of failing public schools to create the justification for its own pet project of privatizing education. The kids caught up in the mess simply do not matter.